From the Government and Here to Help

The U.K. government apparently plans to install 600,000 heat pumps per year into British homes to replace ‘polluting’ gas. No such plans have yet been announced in Australia. Gas heating is used less here than in colder climates. Nevertheless, natural gas is a popular enough form of heating. I have it in my flat. For how long, who knows? The Australian government is sidling its way into the net-zero-by-2050 club. Perforce, setting in train all manner of even more unnatural things than erecting monstrous wind farms.

But what things? There’s the rub. Choices to be made. And, ominously, in the keeping of government.

I viewed one of those Grand Designs TV programs from England. The guy building his innovative house was a green-minded engineer, intent on warming his heavily-insulated house via heat extracted from underground. When finished he pointed to the temperature on his hand-held thermometer with some pride. He had managed to warm his spacious living room to an ambient temperature of 16°C (61°F). His wife in the background looked unimpressed. But that’s his problem not ours.

Build your own igloo! It's easy if you try. Sort of.

Spent his own money. Got a cold house. His choice alone. It’s a whole different kettle of fish when government decides on a particular technical and engineering solution and goes about mandating and subsidising its wholesale implementation. So unfolds a process so fraught with risk that it defies belief that governments could be so foolhardy. Doesn’t it? Not really.

When the economic recession was raging in 2009, the Australian Labor government under Kevin Rudd decided to embark on a range of so-called stimulatory measures. All failed miserably but one stood out. This was the so-called “pink-batts” scheme. The government decide to provide free ceiling insulation batts to anyone who wanted them. This killed two birds with one stone you understand. First, the insulation industry would be stimulated. Second, global warming would be dealt a blow.

Sadly, the outcome did not go according to plan. An aging rocker Peter Garret, finding a second life as a politician, was the government minister in charge; satisfying the requirement (if you’ve ever seen the British TV series Yes Minister) of having no relevant expertise or experience. The existing insulation industry was ruined as main chancers became installers overnight. Imports of insulation batts from China soared; stimulating their manufacturing not ours.

Three untrained installers were electrocuted, another died of hypothermia, several others suffered third-degree burns and ninety-four houses caught fire. The scheme was abruptly closed down. Millions upon millions of insulation batts lay unwanted in warehouses.

Or, you could be warmer. Maybe.

Governments doing silly things with vast amounts of taxpayers’ money is not a rarity. However, hold onto your hats, we ain’t’ seen nothing yet. Unparalleled, climate-combatting catastrophes lie ahead. They’re inevitable. Conditions are ripe. Governments want action. Free markets won’t deliver. This means governments must make choices among alternatives, often mutually exclusive alternatives, armed with insufficient information and foresight; and without the guidance of market prices. What could possibly go wrong? Most everything.

Replacing gas heaters in millions of homes with heat pumps is a huge and irreversible exercise. Too bad if better technological and engineering solutions arise. Of course, when put together with the need to insulate the same number of homes, else rampant hypothermia among the aging, it will prove impossible to accomplish. Nevertheless, if you studiously don’t do the sums in advance, keep blinkered and myopic, there is no telling how far down the road you can get and how much damage you can do before everything falls apart. Look at the pink-batts scheme for a mere taste of the thrilling ride ahead.

Of course, heat pumps are a very small part of governments’ efforts to cure global warming by undoing prosperity. Take electric vehicles.  Figures from the International Energy Agency show transport, almost completely fueled by refined petroleum, accounting for 35 percent of total energy usage in 'selected economies' in 2018.  Passenger cars make up two-thirds of that.  Residential space heating came in at only 11 percent in comparison.

Leave aside the feasibility, practicability, and affordability of extracting and processing the materials required to manufacture sufficient numbers of batteries; never mind their later disposal. It’s the charging of them that’s so much the bigger challenge.

Unfortunately, electric vehicles cannot work their way gradually to a position of dominance and then universality. Not without ubiquitous charging infrastructure. And ‘gradually’, in any event, is not the right word for the wet dreams of woke politicians.

Joe Biden wants half of all cars sold in the United States to be electric, fuel cell, or plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2030. Justin Trudeau has set a date of 2035 for new cars and light-duty trucks to be zero-emission. Boris Johnson wants to ban the sale of new conventionally fueled cars by 2030 and hybrids by 2035. And, think, Glasgow’s on the horizon to steel their reveries.

So easy even Joe Biden can do it. Almost.

Imagine what will be required to support electric vehicles in a zero-emission world. Where is the power to come from? I have seen estimates which suggest that up to 50 percent more electric power will be required. My rough calculation, based on figures published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, suggest that it might be quite a bit more than that. And this, when dispatchable power (sourced from coal and natural gas) is gone and largely replaced with unreliable and intermittent power from wind and solar. Literally incredible.

Then there’s the charging infrastructure. Untold numbers of charging stations and the upgraded substations and cabling required to support them. For comparison purposes, there are around 150,000 gas stations in the United States.

To fill up now takes about five minutes. Currently the fastest charger takes 30 minutes to give your car about 200 miles. Presumably that is so inconvenient that charging technology will drive the time down to something bearable, if batteries can handle it.

Let’s realise what’s happening here. Intensive-energy petroleum (what a boon to human progress) gives out its power incrementally over the whole journey. Whereas, all of that same power and more must be delivered into batteries inside some minutes; multiplied by millions of vehicles. Has anyone in any western government done the sums?

Governments are making an irreversible choice. Spending billions upon billions of dollars and committing untold resources to bring about their currently favoured means of propelling vehicles. They didn’t choose petroleum back near the turn of the 20th century; the market did. And the difference that makes, we’ll discover painfully.